Why Are The Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks So Much Better This Season?

When I watch the Chicago Blachhawks play this season, I see a much improved team as compared to last year, and in many areas of the game. And when I watch the Anaheim Ducks, I see the same thing. There’s just so much more speed on the ice than before, so much more depth, and a lot more beef on the blue-line (even if I haven’t been impressed with Bryan Allen).

However, while no one seems at all perplexed at how the Blackhawks have been able to improve so much despite no significant offseason additions–their biggest name signing was Sheldon Brookbank, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people question the Ducks’ improvement, saying things like, “The Ducks are the exact same team this year. How are they winning so many more games? They should be just as bad!”

Maybe it’s just because the Blackhawks are much more in the national spotlight, so casual onlookers have had a greater opportunity to see what’s changed in the Blackhawks’ team than they’ve had with the Ducks’ (who play many of their games at 10:00PM Eastern Time), but I’m surprised I haven’t heard that same question posed more about the Blackhawks, too, since the reasons for both teams’ ascensions this season are so similar.

Of course, improved goaltending for both teams is obviously a big reason, but that’s obvious (obviously). I’m going to focus on the skaters instead.

For the Ducks, as your entrée, I give you Kyle Palmieri. For the Blackhawks, I give you Brandon Saad. Before the season started, I tweeted that one of the many teams that had the potential to surprise in the west this season was the Anaheim Ducks, provided their youth finally stepped in and fixed the depth issues on the third and fourth lines that have plagued the Ducks for so long. So far, they have, and you can say the same thing about the Blackhawks.

On the Ducks, the likes of Kyle Palmieri, Emerson Etem, and Peter Holland have come in and given the Ducks first-line calibre offensive tools (meaning speed, or skating, or hands, or passing, or shots–most these players have a few of these each) on their third and fourth offensive lines, something most other teams don’t have. Then you add in fifteen minutes a night of Daniel Winnik, a fast, powerful play-driver the likes of which is also a rarity on most NHL third-lines, plus the emergence of Nick Bonino as a dependable two-way top-nine center who can add some offense, too, plus the evolution of Andrew Cogliano into a fantastic two-way speed demon with infinite stamina, plus free agent signée signee Sheldon Souray’s physicality, hockey sense, and booming slap shot on the back-end, which has helped revitalize Anaheim’s power-play along with the help of Francois Beauchemin’s career-season both on the power-play and at even-strength, and what you have is a completely different team, with much more speed, skill, and depth up front, and more size and scoring punch from the back-end.

It’s understandable that the casual fan could mistake the 2013 Ducks (or even the Blackhawks) as being the same as last year, given that there were no major acquisitions to either team last summer, but what that fan would be missing is that the core players were never the problem with these teams. Sure, both teams suffered from having key players who didn’t seem completely motivated and focused on winning last year in Ryan Getzlaf and Patrick Kane, and it’s certainly helped that both re-committed themselves to hockey (and fitness) in the offseason. But more than anything, these teams suffered from a lack of depth last season, from depth forward lines that couldn’t maintain the offensive momentum created by the first or second line, and dodgy depth defense pairs. Even the top-two lines in Chicago each seemed to have a player missing, diminishing the impact Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane or Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa could have together on the ice.

And that’s why Brandon Saad has just been so key in my opinion. He may not score as often as Toews or Kane, in part because he doesn’t get the power-play time they do (and in part because he’s not Toews or Kane), but don’t let that fool you into thinking he’s out of place on that top line. He’s not. In fact he looks perfectly molded to play in that exact spot, a Blackhawk through and through. While he’s bigger than the average finesse forward on the Blackhawks, that hasn’t affected his speed. He’s got the power in his first step as well as the top speed to keep up with Toews and Kane with no problems whatsoever. The size he has to go along with his excellent skating allows him to maintain the cycle with his line-mates as well, which is a big change from last year when the cycle would often die on the stick of the third forward on that line–again, diminishing the impact of Toews and Kane.

Saad is just the perfect fit for that line (short of Dustin Byfuglien, who is one of a kind), the missing link who nearly completes Chicago’s top-six. He’s not just a good fill-in alongside top players, either. He’s not someone who does well playing on the wing with two stars, but who could never carry a top-line by himself, like maybe Pascal Dupuis for the Penguins. Saad already looks like a bonafide top-four or top-five forward himself, and he’s still a prospect. Fantastic draft pick, and a great compliment to Toews and Kane. I would say he’s as important to the Blackhawks’ success this season as anyone.

And much like with the Anaheim Ducks, this is the story that repeats over and over throughout the Chicago Blackhawks lineup. Bryan Bickell isn’t new to the Blackhawks lineup like Saad is, but he’s a different player than last year. He’s evolved from someone who had all the tools to be a premier power forward, but couldn’t put it all together into consistent impact performances, to pretty much a prototypical second-line power forward, just with more speed than your average power-forward and yes, still a bit more inconsistency than you’d like to see. But the improvement from last year to this year is significant. The Blackhawks have to get this guy re-signed, as he could be a future star.

Vitktor Stalberg has also improved his game and become more consistent, even if, like Bickell, he’s still not always consistent. Andrew Shaw has built on his strong under-the-radar showing in his rookie season last year and become a steady presence in Chicago’s bottom-six, driving the play consistently night-to-night in a third-line role at even strength with some power-play time.

Marcus Krueger, too, has been a plus bottom-six performer for the Blackhawks this season due to his hockey sense, detail-oriented game, plus-skating ability and balance, and plus-passing ability for a bottom-six forward. He still hasn’t really been able to find his hands or his scoring touch off the rush since coming to the NHL like I presume he did in Sweden, but he’s very good around the net at deflecting in goals and cleaning up the trash, especially for a European finesse player of his size.

Likewise, on the back-end, some key returning Blackhawks’ players have improved their games (or simply been improved upon with someone else). Sean O’Donnell retired after an awful showing last season, and even though Sheldon Brookbank, who has played more than Michael Roszival as O’Donnell’s replacement this year, is not a very good defenseman himself, he’s still an improvement over O’Donnell. Plus, at least Brookbank can skate and handle the puck, which fits Chicago’s style nicely. As long as the Blackhawks have the puck, which is often, Brookbank’s deficiencies in decision-making and positional play can be minimized, and his skating and solid hands for a defenseman can be assets to the team. And if Quellenville starts to give Roszival more games instead of Brookbank, Roszival was actually a quality defenseman for the Coyotes last season, although I wonder if he hasn’t taken a step back this season at the age of 34.

More significant than the addition-by-subtraction of Sean O’Donnell, Nick Leddy has evolved his game from being a smooth-skating but soft defensive-liablity last season to an impossibly fast and smooth puck-moving machine. He’s still not elite defensively by any means, but you can see he’s gotten “bigger-stronger-faster”, and you just can’t catch him anymore. He’s literally starting to look like Duncan Keith. Not quite there, yet, but Leddy has become somewhat of an impact defenseman, elite in transition and quick enough not to be caught most times back in the defensive zone, which is a big change from being someone who made the Blackhawks worse last season when he was on the ice as much as he made them better.

And speaking of Duncan Keith, after a down season by his standards last year, he looks to be faster and stronger, too, with just a bit more jump to his game. He looks like the old Duncan Keith again. It’s a recurring theme, but a large majority of the team seems to have rededicated themselves to working out and getting in top shape, and it has made all the difference for some of these individual players, which in turn has made all the difference in the depth of this team.

Nicklas Hjalmarsson, too, after seeing his play dip for two seasons ever since signing his big contract via the Sharks’ offer-sheet, is playing his best hockey since the breakout year he had in 2009-2010, and last year’s trade deadline acquisition of the Blackhawks, Johnny Oduya, continues to play the role of a poor man’s Brian Campell very effectively. Like Brookbank (just not as bad), he’s prone to the boneheaded play in his own zone sometimes, and like Leddy, if you can catch him and get a body on him, you might find yourself with a pretty good scoring chance not long after, however both he and 2013-Leddy are just so incomparably smooth–I mean the Blackhawks have like three of the seven or eight most elusive defensemen in the NHL–that most times you can’t catch him (or Leddy), and having three defenseman like that out of your six who can just wield behind the net, turn on their rocket blasters after one step, and then zoom it up the ice past three forecheckers all on their own, adds so much to the transition offense many of Chicago’s forwards are built for.

So all those young players evolving, combined with veteran stars rededicating themselves and their bodies to the game, explains why these two teams who didn’t add any star names in free agency have been so much better and so much deeper this season on forward and defense.

And then, of course, both teams have had better goaltending this season, which makes a big difference too, although part of the reason their goaltending has been better is that they both have so much improved depth in front of their goaltenders, keeping the play in the other end more, executing the system better with their improved skills, keeping the front of the net clear better when it is in their end, and just making less boneheaded plays, period, like we’ve seen with Nick Leddy’s improvement since last season for Chicago and Sheldon Brookbank’s addition over the struggling Sean O’Donnell, or adding Sheldon Souray’s size defending the crease and getting rid of Sheldon Brookbank in Anaheim, as Brookbank struggled for them (but fits the Blackhawks’ system better and is an improvement for them over Sean O’Donnell regardless, if you get the distinction of why he was a negative for one team compared to this year and a positive for the other compared to what they had last year).

In closing, my opinion is that the additions and/or improvements of Kyle Palmieri, Daniel Winnik, Nick Bonino, Andrew Cogliano, Emerson Etem, Peter Holland, Sheldon Souray, Francois Beauchemin, Ryan Getzlaf, Saku Koivu and Viktor Fasth are to credit for the Ducks playing so much better this season, along with an improved power-play, improved goaltending and play in front of the goaltenders, and just a revitalized, rededicated team under new coach Bruce Beaudreau who lets them play and use all their speed and skill, while for the Blackhawks, my opinion is the additions and/or improvements of Brandon Saad, Nick Leddy, Bryan Bickell, Andrew Shaw, Viktor Stalberg, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Johnny Oduya, (the health of) Jonathan Toews, Corey Crawford, and Ray Emery are to credit for the Blackhawks performing so much better this season, along with a better power-play similar to Anaheim, a much better penalty kill, a much better defensive system period to protect the team’s shaky goaltending which uses the Blackhawks’ speed to their advantage on defense now, too, as opposed to just on offense before, and a completely rededicated team throughout the entire roster it seems, with players in much better shape than last season and more focused and committed to winning, sort of a “playtime-is-over” type attitude throughout that locker room, as opposed to the prior few seasons where a player like Patrick Kane seemed more dedicated to playtime than any other player in the NHL.

So that’s why both teams are better. And they are better, I have no doubt in my mind. Some do doubt that assertion, however. For instance, the advanced stats most commonly used to evaluate teams (like fenwick-close and fenwick-tied) will tell you what you’d expect about the Blackhawks, that they are much improved this year and one of the NHL’s elite teams, however these stats (and those peddling them) actually say somewhat the opposite about the Anaheim Ducks, that they are just as bad as they were last season.

I disagree. I think the stats are wrong and very misleading in this instance, which illustrates the problem of judging a team based only on fenwick scores (or any other “advanced stat”), and even I’m saying this after the Ducks just lost two in a row to the Detroit Red Wings.

Both teams, the Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks, are better this season, and to my eye, there are clear reasons why for each, which I’ve gone over here.

Thanks for reading.

Written by Shark Circle